Portrait of Palau: An Ally of Japan in the Pacific

“Palau and Japan Are Like Brothers”: An Interview with President Tommy Remengesau


We sat down with the President of Palau, Tommy E. Remengesau, Jr., to talk about the country’s amicable relationship with Japan, national security, diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and future plans for tourism.

Tommy E. Remengesau, Jr.

President of the Republic of Palau. Born in 1956. After studying criminology in the United States, became a member of the Palau National Congress at age 28. After serving as president for two terms from 2001 through 2009, he was reelected again in 2012 and is currently in the midst of his fourth term as president. Served as the liaison for Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan when they visited Palau in 2015. Visits Japan nearly every year and is known to have a good relationship with Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō.

About Palau

Population 21,500. While the current capital city is Ngerulmud, the former capital of Koror is the commercial and financial hub of the country. The clear blue waters surrounding the nation make it one of the best diving destinations in the world, thanks in part to government policies to protect the natural environment. After World War I, the country was made a League of Nations mandate territory and was governed by Japan for approximately 30 years. Koror Island was home to the South Pacific Mandate, which maintained jurisdiction over the northern islands of Micronesia (formerly the South Sea Islands) and where 2,500 Japanese nationals—surpassing the number of native Palauans at the time—once lived. The country is home to Peleliu Island, a site known as a fierce battleground in the Pacific Theater of World War II. In 2015, 70 years after the end of the war, Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visited Palau, where they participated in a memorial service.

Palau’s Enduring Bond with Japan

NOJIMA TSUYOSHI   Palau and Japan are known for having a good relationship. Mr. President, what can you tell us about Japan-Palau ties?

TOMMY REMENGESAU  It’s a relationship best described as brotherly. We really view Japan as something of an older brother. The flag of Palau is a yellow moon against the background of a blue ocean, while Japan’s is the red sun on a white background. The moon and sun exist together. The relationship between our countries stretches far back—our forefathers truly admired and understood the values that we shared before the war, and that we continue to share today.

We’ve retained many Japanese words that are now ingrained in our language. There are a lot of Japanese terms used when it comes to cooking, as Japanese food is part of our everyday diet. Japanese culture has become deeply intertwined with Palau’s and that cultural legacy is understood by second-, third-, and even fourth-generation Palauans, if we take the first generation to be those from before the war.

NOJIMA  It’s said that one in four Palauans have Japanese blood, and you count yourself among their number.

REMENGESAU  Yes, I have Japanese blood on my grandmother’s side. Her father was Japanese.

NOJIMA  You said that Japanese words are used by Palauans, but are there any words in particular that you remember hearing from when you were a child?

REMENGESAU  A lot of words have to do with being scolded (laughs). Other things like shōganai, “it can’t be helped,” or naoranai, as in an “incurable” habit. We use oishii as a word for “delicious” quite a bit. Also tsukareta for “tired,” denwa for “telephone,” and, when it comes to government, terms like senkyo for “election” and daitōryō for “president.” I’ve heard that Palauan has over 3,000 Japanese loan words.

Imperial Visit Brings Tourism Boom

NOJIMA  After serving two terms in office, you walked away from the presidency, but then you came back for another term beginning in 2013. People often talk about your relationship with Prime Minister Abe Shinzō.

REMENGESAU  Prime Minister Abe and I have a strong, amicable relationship. Both of us have had long terms governing, after all. In my mind, there are actually two Prime Minister Abes, and I prefer the second-term Prime Minister, since when it comes down to it, his first term was so short. [Laughs] I feel like he learned quite a bit during his first term and was really able to grow into the politician he is today.

It’s the same with me. I feel that things have gone better during my second tenure as president. The prime minister is a very open person who deeply understands the importance of the Pacific region. He places importance on personal networking with island nations in the Pacific as well as efforts to build sustainable economic growth, and he works alongside the United States to help provide us with needed resources and technology.

NOJIMA  How many times have you visited Japan?

REMENGESAU  I’ve been about twenty times in all, including when I was a member of our congress and when I was vice president. Since becoming president, there’s often a need for me to visit for my work. It’s a very caring, safe, clean, and charming country. When it comes to the food, Japanese cuisine is both delicious and aesthetically appealing. But, more than anything, Palau and Japan are tied together by their history, and I feel that we are able to get along on a human level, which always helps make for a pleasant stay when I am there.

Prime Minister Abe and President Remengesau shake hands after the seventh Pacific Islands Leaders Meeting on May 23, 2015, in Iwaki, Fukushima. (© Jiji)

NOJIMA  Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visited Palau for a memorial service, right?

REMENGESAU  Firstly, I would like to state just how grateful I am to his majesty for his huge contributions to helping Japan, Palau, and the rest of the world protect the oceans and the biodiversity of our region. His majesty has an especially perceptive outlook when it comes to aquatic life and fish. His visit to Palau was truly an amazing moment for Palau-Japanese relations. The people of Palau were proud and happy to interact with the emperor and empress, and their visit symbolizes the special relationship that our two nations share.

Many Palauans had the chance to shake hands with his majesty during his visit—something that I’ve heard not many people in Japan ever get the chance to do. When we held the welcoming reception for the two of them in Palau, his majesty was kind enough to greet every participant and performer personally, and everyone was a little star struck afterwards, thinking, “Did I really just shake hands with the emperor?”

Thanks to his visit, Japanese people started taking an interest in Palau, which has led to an increase in the number of tourists from Japan. His visit has caused something of a ripple effect, with people are coming to my country, wanting to visit the same places that the emperor did. The message that he conveyed while he was here—that war is something that must never be repeated—certainly rings true. While I would like for him to continue his reign, I understand the importance of keeping in good health and spending time with loved ones as well.

Working with Japan and the United States on Security

NOJIMA  Japan and Palau are working together to face maritime safety issues. Recently, Palau received a donation of new 40-meter patrol boats from the Nippon Foundation, with their maiden voyage taking place on February 13. How have these patrol boats impacted Palau in terms of maritime security?

REMENGESAU  These patrol boats from Japan are another symbol of our two nations’ special relationship. Japanese NGOs work closely with our maritime policing department in helping us to protect our waters and provide our citizens with the chance for rich, fulfilling lives.

I’m sure that these new vessels will help us reinforce security around our large exclusive economic zone. The landmass of Palau only accounts for 1 percent of the total area of our EEZ, and with our limited resources, this means that we rely on outside support when it comes to maritime security. A constant problem that Palauans face is illegal activity by poachers and others, and I am sure that these Japanese-made, state-of-the-art patrol boats will greatly help us to monitor and patrol our waters.

NOJIMA  Palau sits at the very bottom of what is called the “second island chain,” and is close to Guam, a recent target for North Korean missile exercises. Palau is now considered a location of great geopolitical importance, and both Japan and the United States are looking to reinforce their relationships with you.

REMENGESAU  The dangers of North Korea’s actions have extended as far as nations in the Pacific that are close to Guam and Japan, and are a cause for concern. We Palauans will do what we must. We have strong ties with the United States in the military area, and if the Americans have a strategic reason for using our territory, then they have access to it. We are already working with US forces to introduce sea and air monitoring systems to help with regional security. In addition to the geopolitical aspect, this will help to prevent smuggling and the transport of other illegal goods, as well as keep our waters safer.

NOJIMA  Last year, the administration of US President Donald Trump proposed revised provisions for Palau that would extend the two nations’ Compact of Free Association. The compact gives Palau budgetary aid in exchange for the United States taking jurisdiction over Palauan defense matters. Is the US government putting more emphasis on security in the Pacific region now than it did in the past?

REMENGESAU  We actually reached a consensus on revisions to the compact back in 2010, but nothing really moved forward with the budgetary provisions, leaving us quite frustrated. However, we are very happy now that a budgetary plan has been put before Congress.

Stable Ties with Taiwan

NOJIMA  Palau and Taiwan entered into diplomatic relations back in 1999, but it’s well known that China is pressuring all countries that do this to establish formal ties with Beijing instead. How does Palau view this situation?

REMENGESAU  Our diplomatic relationship with Taiwan, ever since it was established when President Kuniwo Nakamura was in office [1993–2001], remains steadfast. If possible, we would like to have diplomatic relationships with both Taiwan and China, the reason being that we view neither nation as an enemy. However, regarding the “One China” issue, we understand that this is very serious for both Taiwan and China.

That said, our diplomatic relations with Taiwan have not made us enemies with China, with which we maintain a cooperative relationship. Palau is a member of the United Nations, and given China’s role as a permanent member of the Security Council, its role in maintaining worldwide stability is of monumental importance. We Palauans would very much like to encourage trade and financial relationships between our two nations, and hope to become long-term partners in the future.

The new government building in Palau’s capital of Ngerulmud, built with support from Taiwan. A plaque in front of the building commemorates the friendly ties between the two countries. (Photo by Nojima Tsuyoshi)

NOJIMA  Does this mean Palau is not thinking to reevaluate its diplomatic relationship with Taiwan?

REMENGESAU  No, we are not. There certainly are people in Palau who are hoping for the country to do so, and there are politicians who express that position as well. However, as I stated before, we remain steadfast in our diplomatic relationship with Taiwan.

NOJIMA  What about financial or trade agreements with China? Last year the Palau legislature discussed measures that would forge treaties with China, but the bills were narrowly rejected after a five-to-five deadlock. Meanwhile, your country has seen a dramatic increase in Chinese tourism recently.

REMENGESAU  Our fundamental stance is to offer people from all countries the opportunity to visit ours. Tourism is one of the chief sources of income for our country and is very important to us. At the same time, we have to be careful to protect our precious natural resources. If the number of tourists increases too drastically, this will have an effect on the Palauan environment.

We want to be able to accept tourists from countries all over the world. If this open stance means that we temporarily see declines in visitors from certain countries, this does not mean that it will cause a crash in the tourism market overall.

Many Chinese tourists come to our country on vacation by way of Hong Kong. The numbers of people on these package tours has exceeded our expectations. From the perspective of the long-term health of the industry, though, it isn’t a plus to have all the rooms at a hotel being filled up just by tourists from a single country. We need to maintain balance. For this reason, we have taken measures to halve the number of flights coming to Palau from Hong Kong.

Hotels along the ocean front in Palau’s largest city, Koror. Foreign tourists looking to experience the country’s beautiful vistas and clear blue ocean are on the rise. (Taken in December 2014)

Reducing the number of flights has caused the number of Chinese tourists to drop. As a result of this, we’ve been able to regain a balance of tourists from Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Europe, and we are moving toward getting things back to the way they were before. Local media is reporting that the number of visitors is on the decline, but that is exactly our intention.

We Palauans have learned that the number of foreign tourists does not translate directly to profits and tax revenues. Perhaps you could call it “quality tourism.” We are focusing our attention on reinforcing our base among individual travelers rather than those on package tours. The number of tourists has decreased since last year, but on the contrary, our tax revenues from tourism are up. This is a good indication of where we are going, and I believe people will understand when we say that we place more value on quality than quantity when it comes to this matter.

(Originally published in Japanese on February 9, 2018, based on an interview conducted on January 18, 2018, at the presidential office in Koror. Banner photo: Palauan President Tommy E. Remengesau, Jr.)

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